By Chloe Gregori
Whether students are cramming for late night exams, needing a spike of energy during a 9 am lecture, or studying at a local Berkeley cafe—coffee embodies the college experience. In fact, 54 percent of Americans over the age of 18 drink coffee every day. Coffee is worth over $100 billion worldwide, placing it ahead of other global commodities like gold, natural gas, and oil.
However, this massive and lucrative industry is not without social cost. The complex supply chain—from coffee bean to cup—tends to funnel money to corporations in wealthy countries from farmers in poorer countries, where the beans are arduously picked by hand. In 2016, two of the world’s biggest coffee companies, Nestlé and Dunkin’ Donuts, admitted that beans from Brazilian plantations using slave labour may have tainted its coffee products. Overall, coffee is one of the most notorious industries for human rights abuses. Workers are vulnerable to low wages, exploitative work conditions and, at worst, forced labor and human trafficking.
The Berkeley Coffee Project, an initiative under the Anti-Trafficking Coalition, which is a Blum Center-sponsored IdeaLab, is aiming to empower students to become more conscious consumers and educate them about labor practices connected to their everyday purchases. As the Berkeley Coffee Project Planning Chair Sophia Arce states, “To minimize human rights violations within this industry, it is up to us, the consumers, to demand products that hail from a fair, transparent supply chain.”
Arce, a senior Global Studies major, led a team of over 30 students from diverse disciplines to develop “Conscious Coffee”—an app that allows students to easily find ethically sourced coffee near the UC Berkeley campus. The app includes a list of 30 partner cafes sorted by distance from user’s location, sourcing certifications (along with explanations of their meaning), and links to each cafe.
To launch the app, the team hosted Coffee Festival in early April, an event for students to learn more about local companies that use ethical sourcing and get their fair share of free coffee products. The festival featured campus vendors, such as CalDining (which sells Fair Trade coffee via its partnership with Peets) and Equator and local businesses like COBA, Sweet Maria’s, FORTO, and Rebbl. Students also learned from Berkeley Coffee Project representatives about the difference between fair trade, direct trade, USDA Organic, and a range of sustainability labels.
“Understanding the labels is a basic step, but there are so many ways for products to be ethically sourced,” Arce explained. “It’s important not to accept labels at face value and do your research.”
The Berkeley Coffee Project plans to recruit more cafes to be listed in the app and create a purchasing rewards feature.
“There is a perception that products with labels like Organic or Fair Trade are too expensive for the general population to afford, let alone college students scrambling to afford Bay Area housing costs and overpriced textbooks,” said Arce. “If the goal of ethically sourced products is to empower economically marginalized populations, shouldn’t they be accessible to consumers who also struggle financially?”
Arce said this irony inspired her to add a rewards system for future app development.
“Not only do I want to provide Cal students with the information they need to make conscientious consumption choices, I want to give them the financial resources to make these choices viable.”
Want to learn more about ethically sourced coffee near campus? Download the Conscious Coffee for Android here or on the Apple App Store.